As activity swirls at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the institution's busiest day of the year, an exhibit in an unassuming room on the ground floor is demonstrating -- and creating -- a new legacy of contemporary art in Detroit.
"Roots, Branches and Seeds" opened last week and will run throughout 2012 in three stages, featuring the work of nine figurative painters in the Great American Artists collective.
"They don't think of themselves as African American artists per se," said Patrina Chatman, curator of the Wright Museum. "They want to think of themselves as great artists. In addition, they work together, they network together, they support one another and provide a great service to the community."
Chatman organizes exhibits for the Wright's contemporary arts program, which has shown the work of over 40 artists since its launch in 1999, often with an emphasis on local artists.
Three of Detroit's own, Gregory Johnson, Richard Lewis and Sabrina Nelson, form the "Roots," the first of the three parts of the exhibit, which will move into the present with "Branches" in May and "Seeds" in September.
Senghor Reid, one of the artists who will show his work in "Branches," explained the role of the "Roots" in the group, saying, "These three artists at one point or another have been like teachers or mentors for the other six artists, so they're like our foundation."
Reid took art classes in high school taught by Nelson and Lewis. "When I was taking Saturday classes with Sabrina, [her son Mario, who is exhibiting his work later in the series] was four or five years old, sitting there with his little sketchbook, drawing," he said. "So it's something that's been passed down from generation to generation."
Reid described the way the Great Contemporary Artists collective came to be, explaining, "About two or three years ago, myself and a couple of other artists felt like we needed to have some sort of group of figurative artists. We all knew each other, we all knew of each other's work, but we didn't all know each other."
They initially bonded with a group project, where each artist sat for a portrait with one of the others.
"We learned a great deal about each other's work. It was inspiring to go to another artist's studio and get a glimpse of their processes."
When the artists gathered for the opening event last week, they were congratulated by scores of friends, family and admirers in the community, including plenty of children.
Chatman intentionally organizes shows that appeal to a youthful audience. "I try to put photos of the artists [on the wall with their art] so the young people can see it's ok to become an artist," she explained.
The artists in the first part of the series focus on family and community, Reid explained, while he and his peers in the "Branches" show look farther outward, examining their environment and how they relate to it.
Nelson's multi-media works range from small, layered collages in shadow boxes to towering tapestries that weave together human figures, quotations, family keepsakes and patterns. "My work is about ... being still in the midst of chaos," she said.
Similarly, Lewis's richly colored portraits focus on his family. "I'm a collection of all of the people who made me," he explained.
Johnson got his MFA after going to Bowling Green on a football scholarship. He works in watercolor, painting lively scenes from photographs he and his family members have taken. "I paint the life I live," he said. "I paint those everyday scenes you walk by each and every day, because some of them are just so amazing and so beautiful."
Johnson said he wouldn't be working as an artist, which led him to make many sacrifices in his personal life, without the support of the artistic community.
"I've been a football player, I've been a teacher, I've been so many different things. [Art] is the only thing that's ever been constant in my life." he explained. "I want to document our history as objectively and as powerfully -- good and bad -- as it can be."
"Roots," the first installment of "Roots, Branches and Seeds," will be at the Charles H. Wright Museum through April 29. The museum is located at 15 East Warren Avenue in Detroit. It is open Tuesday - Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday, 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. In addition, it will be open for several events on Monday for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.